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DARPA Takes On 99 Red Balloons

November 10, 2009
By Katie Packard

Actually, there are only 10. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is holding the DARPA Network Challenge on December 5 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Internet. Participants must locate the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of 10 red weather balloons that will be posted at undisclosed locations across the continental United States.

The competition aims at exploring how the Internet and social networking play into timely communication and wide-area teambuilding when solving broad-scope, time-critical problems. Participants in the challenge are encouraged to form teams and to use online collaboration and social networking platforms to communicate and to share information. In honor of the Internet’s anniversary, the prize for the winner is $40,000.

The challenge’s program manager, Dr. Norman Whitaker, explains, “Four years ago, when DARPA was working on connecting computers, it was a crazy idea. Why would computers talk to each other, connect to each other? With that spirit, we’re taking on things like the Network Challenge today. Social networking may have the potential to change many of the modes in which we act.”

Some of the younger liaisons who work at DARPA came up with the idea for the challenge. “They are very familiar with social networking and the potential for it,” he notes. “ [The challenge] is an example of the energy we get from the younger folks—they instantly saw how social networking is a more effective way to do something. We [at DARPA] are reaching out to the next generation to get their ideas.”

A wiki is available for teams to seek out members and develop strategies. “The participants started that on their own,” Whitaker says. “It’s a great example of their energy.”

Whitaker offers a few tips for participants: Start early by registering on December 1. “Don’t wait until December 5 to make a plan,” he cautions. “Things may happen fast [that day].” He encourages people to engage the individuals who are with the balloons. “They’ll have a handout about the [location] coordinates.”

Registration for the challenge opens on December 1. The deadline to submit location coordinates is December 14. Rules and eligibility information are available on the Web site. The contest is open to individuals of all ages worldwide. DARPA will release additional information about the challenge as the event approaches. Those who are interested can visit the Web site or follow DARPA on Twitter for updates.

Updated December 7: DARPA has announced that the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team has won the competition. Congratulations to the team members! DARPA plans to meet with participating teams to discuss their approaches and strategies used in the challenge.